Friday, November 03, 2006

Been here a year now!
I’m writing this upon someone’s request. Not that I didn’t want to earlier but I officially have a reason now. The request was ‘tell me about the “I-have-been-in-TIFR-experience”’. I have but a year behind me in this monument that India maintains to honour and perpetuate Science. The experience may just have been like any other to a hardened researcher (other than from Physics and maths; the biologists and chemists understand each others grievances better). But for someone fresh out of a BSc and fairly naive in the ways of research, it has been a roller coaster ride!
A lot of people feel they have achieved something big when they come into TIFR. Most of the time it reflects in their confidence, at times to a point of arrogance. I felt differently (at least from my point of view). From the outside, one perceived it a different world altogether. One expects brainy minds zipping back and forth, discussing weighty issues of scientific truth in its ungarbed, realistic state. Stepping into the campus from the main gate, as the main building revealed itself from behind the majestic banyan, I felt an awe similar to seeing the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the first Red gate. All that lore surrounding the great minds at work in TIFR made me feel inspired by even the building in which such high solemn deeds were done. Then of course, once among the crowd and attending the first few lectures and seminars that past near tangentially off my head, the awe deepened. As ill acquainted with the ways of researchers as I was back then, everything seemed the way it should be and I, out of place. Little does one realize in the first couple of days that not even the senior most students understand all of it. But those were the unwise, uninformed first few days.
As a student fresh from college, there was a hunger for learning. MSc students are assigned advisors (read Bosses), without their choice, under whom they are supposed to do their Projects. As has been my habit for long, learning was more through discussions than reading. I tried the same tactic. Unfortunately, the mantra around here is “Find out and tell me”. This definitely is not something any of my teachers had ever told me. When one takes courses here at DBS, one fact glares at you. Coursework is a pitiable excuse for its namesake! Apparently it used to be a lot worse. The rare exception exists. The evaluation however, maintains very high standards (just as it should be). The sad thing is to some students, at least has been to me, this ‘find out yourself’ business comes as a shock. But then, your advisor (Principal Investigator, PI for short) doesn’t seem to worry at all about how your coursework goes. After all the main thrust (30/42 credits) is on your project. You are lifted above the sundry college practicals to enlightened research!
It isn’t a wonder why the emphasis is such. You come to TIFR for MSc and are paid Rs 5000 a month. How many people get that? You had better produce DATA to keep the ‘paper’ mills running. Your advisor bothers a lot not only himself/herself but also you, about this aspect of your ‘education’. The ‘find out yourself’ seems a lot worse right now! This is true especially when you have to defend your experiments every six months in front of the whole department. Dr. K.S Krishnan called them ‘Causerie’ (apparently French for Crow-talk, je ne sais pas Francais) and the name stuck. These sessions are usually objective analyses of the work presented. Of course, the same hands that create great sculptures can equally well strangle someone. Often the PIs let loose what appears to be a vicious and sadistic academic attack on the poor student. Such instances are humbling, sometimes humiliating for the person at the receiving end.
But such is the education disbursed at TIFR. Education is too broad a term to fit this goings on. In fact a lot of things are misnomers in my opinion. This is vocational training aimed at producing researchers. Education is something just happens on the way, on your own accord. Come to think of it, that is the way it happens in most ‘good’ places: Select talented people (my case being an exception). Give them the resources and exposure to quality research in the form of top scientists within India and abroad. And motivate them to do a good job. Again, the motivation can come as an incentive or a threat. You constantly feel the latter in most labs here. The incentive is generally that satiation of your own drive that, at extreme points, tends to break down. It seems only to highlight a popular prevalent policy “What doesn’t kill you, leaves you stronger”. See how sweetly “find out yourself” fits in? You sometimes feel the other guy just doesn’t want to help you. The person is forgiven. He or she has data of their own to produce and defend. In the end, you emerge a survivor: a survivor who has had to break Olympic records to save his life. You know what questions to anticipate at presentations. You know where to look for, not ask for, answers. You know how much the people know and need to know about your work. At a later stage you appreciate the nuances, beauty and elegance of experiments and drawn inferences. You value time and organization like never before. Stronger you certainly are, if alive.
The campus is a major part of this survivor’s life support system. The sea face is something TIFR could absolutely not exist without. Nourishment for the soul pours in when the sky turns scarlet at dusk. Its grey rainy garb is inspiring too! Oh, but why forget the light blue on a sunny morning with cottony wisps floating about? All of these sheltering a lush green lawn manicured daily. The joy of viewing this vista while sipping good tea in the air conditioned West Canteen makes the entire trauma worth it. Full marks to the gardners and consmetic maintenance section! In the main flow of life are sugared in memorable moments you get to pass with lab-mates, department-mates, TIFR-mates and sometimes people outside TIFR as well. My seniors at TIFR have been wonderful people. I found people to look up to among them, and some others, not quite. At most occasions, the whole student gang behaves as a single unit. A student’s substance, depending on how much grit he has, is usually moulded in a most productive fashion. The feeling of being here is unique. I hope I still have something nice to say after the remaining two years. Only time can tell.